Obrázky na stránke

The first book that bears the inscription, 'Imprynted by me, William Caxton, at Westmynstre,' is The Dictes and Sayings of Philosophers. Caxton did little or nothing for classical learning. His translation of the Eneid of Vergil is from a contemptible French romance. But he preserved for us Chaucer and Lydgate and Gower with zealous care. He printed the Chronicles of Brut and Higden; he translated the Golden Legend: and the Morte d'Arthur, written by SIR THOMAS MALORY in the reign of Edward IV., one of the finest and simplest examples of early prose, was printed by him with all the care of one who loved the 'noble acts of chivalry.' He had a tradesman's interest in publishing the romances, for they were the reading of the day, but he could scarcely have done better for the interests of the coming literature. These books nourished the imagination of England, and supplied poet after poet with fine subjects for work or fine frames for their subjects. He had not a tradesman's, but a loving literary, interest in printing the old English poets; and, in sending them out from his press, Caxton kept up the continuity of English poetry. The poets after him at once began on the models of Chaucer and Gower and Lydgate; and the books themselves, being more widely read, not only made poets but a public that loved poetry. If classic literature, then, was one of the sources in this century of the Elizabethan literature, the recovery of old English poetry was another.

PROSE UNDER HENRY VIII.—With the exception of Caxton's work all the good prose of the fifteenth century was written before the death of Edward IV. The reigns of Richard III. and of Henry VII. produced no prose of any value, but the country awakened from its dulness with the accession of Henry VIII., 1509. A band of new scholars, who had studied in Italy, taught Greek in Oxford, Cambridge, and London. John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's, with John Lily, the grammarian, set on foot a school where the classics were taught in a new and practical way. Erasmus, who had all the enthusiasm

which sets others on fire, taught in England, and with Grocyn, Linacre, Sir Thomas More, and Archbishop Warham formed a centre from which a liberal and wise theology was spread.

The new learning which had been born in Italy, and which these men represented in England, stirred and gave life to everything, and woke up English Prose from its sleep. Much of the new life of English Literature was due to the patronage of the young king. It was Henry VIII. who supported SIR THOMAS ELYOT, and encouraged him to write books in the vulgar tongue that he might delight his countrymen. It was the king who asked LORD BERNERS to translate Froissart, a book which made a landmark in our tongue,' and who made LELAND, our first English writer on antiquarian subjects, the 'King's Antiquary.' It was the king to whom ROGER ASCHAM dedicated his first work, and the king sent him abroad to pursue his studies. This book, the Toxophilus, or the School of Shooting, 1545, was written for the pleasure of the yeomen and gentlemen of England, in their own tongue. Ascham apologizes for this, and the apology marks the state of English prose. Everything has been done excellently in Greek and Latin, but in the English tongue so meanly that no man can do worse.' He has done his work well, and in quaint but charming English.

[ocr errors]

PROSE AND THE REFORMATION.-But the man who did best in English prose was SIR THOMAS MORE in the earliest English history, the History of Edward V. and Richard III. The simplicity of his genius showed itself in the style, and his wit in the picturesque method and the dramatic dialogue that graced the book. English prose grew larger and richer under his pen, and began that stately step which future historians followed. The work is said to have been written in 1513, but it was not printed till 1557. The most famous book More wrote, The Utopia, was not written in English. The most famous controversy he had was with WILLIAM TYNDALE, a man who in his translation of the New Testament, 1525,

'fixed our tongue once for all.' His style was as purely English as More's, and of what kind it was may be read in our Bibles, for our authorized version is still in great part his translation. In this work, Tyndale was assisted by WILLIAM ROY, a runaway friar; his friend ROGERS, the first martyr in Mary's reign, added to it a translation of the Apocrypha, and made up what was wanting in Tyndale's translation from Chronicles to Malachi, out of COVERDALE'S translation.

It was this Bible which, revised by Coverdale and edited and re-edited as Cromwell's Bible, 1539, and again as Cranmer's Bible, 1540, was set up in every parish church in England. It got north into Scotland and made the Lowland English more like the London English, and, after its revisal in 1611, went with the Puritan fathers to New England, and fixed the standard of English in America. There is no other book which has had so great an influence on the style of English literature. In Edward VI.'s reign CRANMER edited the English Prayer Book, 1549-52. Its English is a good deal mixed with Latin words, and its style is sometimes weak and heavy, but, on the whole, it is a fine example of stately prose. LATIMER, on the contrary, whose Sermon on the Ploughers and other sermons were delivered in 1549 and in 1552, wrote in a plain, shrewd style, which by its humor and rude directness made him the first preacher of his day."

BIBLIOGRAPHY. CAXTON AND MORE.-I. Disraeli's Amenities of Lit.; C. Knight's Old Printer and Mod. Press; Mackintosh's Life of More; J. Campbell's Lord Chan. of Eng.; F. Myers' Lectures on Great Men; E. Lodge's Portraits; Froude's Hist. of Eng.; Fort. Rev., v. 9, 1868, and v. 14, 1870; N. Br. Rev., v. 30, 1859.


THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY POETRY.-"The only literature which reached any strength was poetical, but even that is almost wholly confined to the reign of Henry VI. The new day of poetry still went on, but its noon in Chaucer was now succeeded by the grey afternoon of Lydgate, and the dull

twilight of Occleve. JOHN LYDGATE, a monk of Bury, who was thirty years of age when Chaucer died, wrote nothing of importance till Henry VI.'s reign. Though a long-winded and third-rate poet, he was a delightful man; fresh, natural, and happy even to his old age, when he recalls himself as a boy' weeping for nought, and anon after glad.' There was scarcely any literary work he could not do. He rhymed history, ballads, and legends till the monastery was delighted. He made pageants for Henry VI., masks and May-games for aldermen, mummeries for the Lord Mayor, and satirical ballads on the follies of the day. Educated at Oxford, a traveller in France and Italy, he knew the literature of his time, and he even dabbled in the sciences. He enjoyed everything, but had not the power of adequately expressing his enjoyment. He was as much a lover of nature as was Chaucer, but he cannot make us feel the beauty of nature as Chaucer does. It is his story-telling which brings him closest to Chaucer.

His three chief poems are the Falls of Princes, The Storie of Thebes, and the Troye Book. The first is a translation of a book of Boccaccio's. It tells the tragic fates of great men from the time of Adam to the capture of King John of France, at Poitiers. There is a touch of the drama in the plan, which was suggested by the pageants of the time. The dead princes appear before Boccaccio pensive in his library, and each relates his downfall. The Storie of Thebes is an additional Canterbury Tale, and the Troye Book is a version from the French of the prose romance of Guido della Colonna, a Sicilian poet, if the book be not in truth originally French. The Complaint of the Black Knight, usually given to Chaucer, is stated to be Lydgate's by Shirley, the contemporary of him and of Chaucer. I should like to be able to call him the author of the pretty little poem called the Cuckoo and the Nightingale, included in Chaucer's works. But its authorship is unknown.

THOMAS OCCLEVE, who wrote chiefly in Henry V.'s reign,

about 1420, was nothing but a bad versifier. His one merit is that he loved Chaucer. With his loss the whole land smart

ith,' he says, and he breaks out into a kind of rapture once:—

'Thou wert acquainted with Chaucer! Pardie,

God save his soul,

The first finder of our faire langage.'

And it is in the MS. of his longest poem, The Governail of Princes, that he caused to be drawn, with 'fond idolatry,' the portrait of his master. With this long piece of verse we mark the decay of the poetry of England. Romances and lays were still translated; there were verses written on such subjects as hunting and alchemy. Caxton himself produced a poem; but the only thing here worth noticing is, that at the end of the century some of our ballads were printed.

Ballads, lays, and fragments of romances had been sung in England from the earliest times, and popular tales and jokes took form in short lyric pieces to be accompanied by music and dancing. We have seen war celebrated in Minot's songs, and the political ballad is represented by the lampoon made by some follower of Simon de Montfort on the day of the battle of Lewes, and by the Elegy on Edward I.'s Death. But the ballad went over the whole land among the people. The trader, the apprentices, the poor of the cities, and the peasantry had their own songs. They tended to collect themselves round some legendary name, like Robin Hood, or some historical character made legendary, like Randolf, Earl of Chester. Sloth, in Piers Plowman's Vision, does not know his paternoster, but he does know the rhymes of these heroes. A crowd of minstrels sang them through city and village. The very friar sang them, and made his Englisch swete upon his tunge.' A collection of Robin Hood ballads was soon printed under the title of A Lytel Geste of Robin Hood, by Wynken de Worde. The Nut Brown Maid, The Battle of Otterburn, and Chevy Chase may belong to the end of the


« PredošláPokračovať »